While Yom HaShoah, established by an act of the Israeli Knesset in 1951 and observed on the ‘7th of Nisan, is widely observed by Jews throughout the world, not everyone agrees that the choice of date was a wise one.
A brief history: When the Knesset designated a Holocaust memorial day (formally, Yom HaShoah Ve’ HaGevurah, Remembrance Day for the Holocaust and Heroism), it disregarded the decision of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate that the Tenth of Tevet, which marks the beginning of the ancient siege of Jerusalem, should be the national remembrance day for victims of the Holocaust. The rabbis had also suggested that Tisha B’Av, the day of mourning for the destruction of the First and Second Temples, was an appropriate day to commemorate the Shoah.
In addition, while it was originally proposed that Yom HaShoah coincide with the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, this idea was ultimately rejected, since that would be the day before Passover. As a compromise, the Knesset chose a day falling between the anniversary of the uprising and Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day.
Rabbi Menachem Genack of Shomrei Torah in Englewood, which did not participate in that community’s May 1 observance, told The Jewish Standard that he remains uncomfortable with the creation of a new day of remembrance.
"This is not to denigrate the loss" experienced during the Holocaust, said the rabbi. Noting that he is a follower of the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, he added, "The Rav believed that all Jewish tragedies are appropriately commemorated on Tisha B’Av. You don’t add another day."
"This tragedy can’t be ripped out of the context of Jewish history," he said, pointing out that during the time of the destruction of the Temple, some one-third of the Jewish population was killed. And, he said, the consequences of that destruction "were humongous."
Genack said Soloveitchik told him about a meeting he had with the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in which the Israeli leader voiced his desire to change the date of Yom HaShoah so that it would coincide with Tisha B’Av.
"It caused a tumult in the Israeli press," said Genack, "and there was a lot of criticism. But it was Begin’s idea."
On the other hand, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, religious leader of Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood, said he is "very comfortable" with the existence of a separate day of Holocaust commemoration.
Pointing out that it marks an event that brought evil "to a new level," he said the Holocaust differed from previous disasters in its use of technology and "the totality of it, the devastation it brought."
Still, he added, even if it did not represent destruction on such a vast scale, "we are still living in a time when survivors are among us. The strength they derive when the community remembers is very tangible," he said. "I’ve spoken with survivors," he said, "and this [community recognition and support] keeps them going."
In addition, said Goldin "historically, we are in a unique position bearing witness to something others are trying to deny."
The fact that Yom HaShoah falls during the month of Nisan is a problem for many even for those who observe the commemoration, like Goldin and Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer of Temple Israel Community Center in Cliffside Park, president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis and a columnist for this newspaper.
"I have always been bothered by the ‘corruption’ of the month of Nisan in so many ways," said Engelmayer. Nisan differs from other months, he continued, noting that "if, during this month, someone’s father, or mother, or brother, or son dies … the funeral service is not the same as it is at other times," he said. "We do not do hespeds [eulogies], for example."
In addition, he noted, "there are also things that we drop from various prayer services, such as tachanun during weekdays and ‘Your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness’ on Shabbat afternoons."
Pointing out that "Nisan has an aura of k’dushah [holiness] attached to it from day one until day 30," Engelmayer suggested that "the month in which we celebrate God’s precious gift of freedom to us, the month in which we were born as a people, deserves its special sanctity. Surely there is another day we can all agree on? Some of us already use the Fast of the Tenth of Tevet as a day to say kaddish for those who died in the Shoah. I do. What’s wrong with taking that day and turning it into Yom HaShoah? And why shouldn’t Yom HaShoah be upgraded from some assembly-hall speechifying event into a public fast and religious observance? Is what we do now really the way to mourn our sacred dead?"
Rabbi Neal Borovitz, religious leader of Temple Sholom in River Edge, pointed out that he says kaddish every day for the 6 million Jews killed during the Holocaust. "Every day is a day to commemorate," said Borovitz, whose congregation hosted UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s annual Yom HaShoah commemoration on May 1. But, he noted, since "something can ‘get lost’ if you do it every day, you need one special day, one special moment."
"The Holocaust represents man’s inhumanity to man on a scale unknown in human history," he said. "It’s a unique black hole in human history that can’t be forgotten. When we forget, that’s when Biafra and Darfur happen."
Recalling that Yom HaShoah was originally intended to coincide with the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Borovitz suggested that tying the day into that event helps "defeat the mythology that Jews silently walked to their graves; it reminds us that Jews did fight." In fact, he said, the resistance fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto held out longer than the Polish and French armies.
Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg founding president of the Jewish Life Network / Steinhardt Foundation and of CLAL The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership is confident that Yom HaShoah will ultimately become as important as any other Jewish holiday. Calling it a "major new holiday [whose observance] has actually gotten stronger," Greenberg, former chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, noted that he devoted an entire chapter of his book "The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays" to Yom HaShoah.
"After a major tragedy [such as the Holocaust], it can’t be business as usual," he said, explaining the need for the day’s creation. "The scope of the tragedy was so great it couldn’t be fit in" to existing days of mourning. "It was a major moment, needing its own time and day."
Genack acknowledged that even though his synagogue does not participate as an institution in the communal observance of Yom HaShoah, there are those within his congregation who do attend the communal service. In addition, he said, he understands that "it is meaningful for survivors." But, he reiterated, there are other ways to commemorate the Holocaust.
Engelmayer, despite his misgivings, said that "as long as the community commemorates Yom HaShoah when it does, I will go along with that . It is a communal norm and communal norms should be honored."